American musician Julianna Barwick got off the plane on a cold snowy February morning for the recording of her new album Nepenthe in Iceland with producer Alex Sommers (mucisian/producer of Sigur Ros, Jónsi & Alex). She said “Hey Alex!” - and that was the beginning of a friendship that would shape Nepenthe, an album born out of encounters with both the awe-inspiring landscape of Iceland and contributions from the string ensemble Amiina, the guitarist Róbert Sturla Reynisson from múm, as well as a choir of teenage girls.
Nepenthe marks a development in Barwick's creative process. While it retains the floating vocals and ambient textures of her previous album The Magic Place (2011), there is a definite sense of grounded footing – the footsteps that crunch through the snow, carrying the listener into unknown landscapes where Barwick's emotions lived. Her voice inhabits places it had never been before. Here, Barwick presents a photo diary of her time in Iceland exclusive to Dazed, and spoke of the colours inhabiting the country's watery surroundings.
Dazed Digital: What were your impressions of Icelandic culture?
Julianna Barwick: They are very individualistic, a very strong community. The language was completely beautiful, so many little idiosyncrasies! Also the Icelandic sweaters they all have. It is almost like they are a tribe. Such a unique people.
DD: How has the energy of Iceland as a place influenced the creative development of Nepenthe?
Julianna Barwick: Iceland was a totally unique experience, it is unlike any place I have ever been. There is a sense of adventure and community that I really loved. It was kind of grey the second time I was there and the sun never went completely down which was a little disorienting. It was just a pretty wild experience, and it really shaped the record.
DD: Did you explore the Icelandic countryside?
Julianna Barwick: I was based in Reykjavik most of the time but we were able to drive out to a National Park a little bit outside of Reykjavik and walk around in the forest. On one of the last days I realised I had not seen any of the important things in Iceland so I took the Golden Circle Bus Tour and was able to see the waterfalls and geysers. The colour of the Blue Lagoon is also nothing like I have ever seen before. It is gorgeous and singular. These were all incredible sights to see.
DD: What is your relationship to water?
Julianna Barwick: Water is a really important to me. One of my favourite things is to swim in the ocean… I could walk to the ocean from where I was staying in Reykjavik. One night I got really lost, I walked along and the ocean was glowing in the night! I think in dreams, water represents emotion, so they kind of go hand in hand too.
DD: Has working with Alex Sommers changed your relationship to the nature of your own voice?
Julianna Barwick: Well this was the first album where I came out of hiding and had my voice just featured on its own. I also sing actual words that are understandable. Alex made me feel comfortable doing that. I definitely feel like he opened me up to uncovering some layers of my voice and also to not be afraid to have my vocals standing alone…
DD: Were there any special moments from the recording of Nepenthe that stand out in your memory?
Julianna Barwick: A dream of mine had always been to have strings on my record so the day in the studio with Amiina was really amazing, in so many ways. It made tears come to my eyes, it was such a dream come true.
DD: Where is the origin of the Julianna Barwick sound?
Julianna Barwick: It comes from emotions; it comes from whatever is happening inside of me. The music that I make is very spontaneous and on the spot. It is intuitive. Everything starts with this kind of intuitive search, so that is where my music is all rooted.
DD: If your voice was pregnant, what would you like it to give birth to?
Julianna Barwick: A septuplet boy choir.
Nepenthe is out now on Dead Oceans.